What is the Virginia Farm Mentor Network?

What is the Virginia Farm Mentor Network, and how can it help you?

One of the major goals of the Virginia Farm Mentor Network is to bring established farmers together with folks just starting out in agriculture to discuss practices, trends, and opportunities necessary for success.  It’s a way to connect, capture skills and knowledge, and teach the next generation of agriculture what folks have been doing for years.  There is also a great opportunity to learn Improved/Best Management Practices from folks on the ground, as well as specialist in the field of agriculture.

For generations, the knowledge of agriculture was handed down by almost everyone in rural communities all across  America. It was part of the culture…part of the lifestyle.   Folks heard all about the ins and outs of farming at the local country store, at the post office, at church, at home….it was like you couldn’t get away from it.  Farming was the talk of the town.  I remember the old stories of my Granddad and his buddies.  They had many friendly farming wagers…who would get the crop in the ground the fastest, who brought the largest yield, which farmer got the best price at market, but now beginning farmers have to search for that type of information.  It is as if the teachings of agriculture and ‘the way of doing things’ have been lost.  Rural America and the culture of agriculture has seen its fair share of changes as more folks move to urban areas for ‘a better opportunity’.  The knowledge of everyday farming was often lost in the urban migration.  Skills and experiences were no longer past down from generation to generation.

Today, beginning farmers and ranchers are looking to alternate sources to learn about agriculture.  That is where projects like Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition Project come into the picture.  The project is filling a educational need that used to be part of the common lifestyle.

So, What is the Virginia Farm Mentor Network? 

The Virginia Farm Mentor Network facilitates the exchange of knowledge and skills of experienced farmers & ranchers with the beginning farmer & rancher community.  It also provides an opportunity for long-term working relationships for successful farming.

OK, well…what does that mean?… How does a network facilitate the exchange of  knowledge and skills between the farming communities?  How can the connection with a mentor lead to opportunities for long-term working relationships?

The Farm Mentor Network is a group open to all farmers in Virginia.  The goal of the network is to provide beginning & transitioning farmers an opportunity to get their hands dirty and to make  connections with other farmers that have been working in agriculture for several years.  The USDA defines a beginning farmer as anyone working in agriculture for 10 years or less.  Therefore, the established farmer is anyone successfully farming for more than 10 years.  The Virginia Farm Mentor Network works to connect new farmers with folks that have been doing it for a while.  Simply put, farmers have a lot to learn from other farmers!

The Virginia Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition Project offers Whole Farm Planning programming and education to beginning farmers.  It is one thing to learn about farming….it is often totally another thing to get out and actually FARM.  The Virginia Farm Mentor Network helps supplement the educational experience.  The ultimate goal of the network would be finding on-farm work experiences for beginning farmers & ranchers across Virginia.  Many established farmers are looking for good help with labor, marketing assistance, administrative organization, and/or outreach for the farm (etc.).  Many beginning farmers are looking for real work experiences.  This could be a perfect fit.  This is one way the network can begin to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and skills.

Not all established farmers are looking for help on the farm.  They may not be set up for employees/work situations, but  are interested in the Virginia Farm Mentor Network.  Many farmers want to share their story….their experience.  They want to participate in the Network.  As a Farm Mentor Coordinator, I’m working along with C.J. Isbell (Farm Mentor Coordinator — Central VA.) to capture the stories and experiences of established farmers.  Then we create ways to share the stories and experiences with beginning farmers & ranchers.

How do we capture/share stories and experiences?   

One way, is that C.J (working in central VA) and I (working in SWVA) go out on farm visits to build relationships with established farmers.  We want to get their history,  and take a look  where the operation is going today.  Gaining stories and experiences leads to case studies (Farmer Spotlights), which allows beginning farmers & ranchers to see themselves in other farmers.  It also begins to spark ideas on how to implement farming practices learned in the classroom.

After, the established farmer shows initial interests in participating in the Virginia Farm Mentor Network, we encourage them to attend meetings, open their farm to farm-tours and/or on-farm workdays.  We are creating events to share the on-farm experience with folks that are just starting out.  These are other examples of how we are working to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and skills.  The beginning farmer may not have their own land or if they do, they may not know what to do with it.  Everyone needs experience in their field.  It is much better to learn from someone that has been doing it for a while with some success compared to just going out and trying to learn it all on your own, which often leads to discouragement.

This is where the opportunity for long-term working relationships for successful farming comes into play.  Being a part of the  Virginia Farm Mentor Network opens the door for beginning farmers and ranchers to attend meetings and events with established farmers.  Folks get into a conversation and find they  have something in common…the next thing you know,  a Mentor-Mentee relationship has been formed.  The established farmer may  have work available.  If not, they may allow you to come to their farm for certain tasks, like planting, harvesting, livestock rotation day, etc.  They are not offering the beginning farmer a job, but an opportunity to learn.  Many beginning farmers take established farmers up on this opportunity while working on their own farm and/or other jobs.

Established farmers can also be available for emails or phone calls.  Often email works best, if everyone has the internet hook-up & email service.   Farmers are busy on the farm, but they can answer emails at night or early in the morning.  This arrangement can be convenient for everyone schedule.

In  many cases, we have established and beginning farmers contacting us looking for employees/interns or looking for a work experience and/or a mentor to work with.  This is another way this blog, Virginia Beginning Farmer Connections~ can get the conversation started.   All post regarding Help Wanted and Work Wanted are housed under Farmer/Mentoring/Internship Opportunities.

What is the Virginia Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition Project looking for in a Mentor/Mentee?  We are looking for experience farmers and ranchers as well as beginning farmers and rancher with the following qualities:

— Convey Honest Realities             — Cooperation & Respect

— Strong Work Ethic                       — Mutual Trust of Mentor Network

— Land/Ag Stewardship                 —Desire to Educate/Train/Nurture

Do all mentors have to be farming for 10 years or more? 

Generally, yes.  But, we welcome peer-mentors.  Many beginning farmers can learn from each other.  In fact, you see farming groups/clubs in many communities.  Most of these groups consist of peer type of farmers.  There are also many farming operations out there that may only be 7-8 years old, but they are doing their job very well and have found great success.   We have a lot to learn from everyone in farming.  We welcome farmers of all types and experiences.  We welcome service providers and educators.  We welcome consultants.

Why would an established farmer serve as a mentor? 

To educate the next generation of agriculture!  To retain Agriculture as the #1 industry in Virginia.  To find someone to continue on their farming operation after retirement.  To keep farmland — farmland.  To prevent the ‘last harvest’ of urban sprawl.  There are many reasons that an established farmer would serve as a mentor.  Most of which include a desire to share an honest and realistic picture of the lifestyle of agriculture.

The established farmer has much to gain from the Virginia Farm Mentor Network.  They can gain new skills, improved practices/methods, discover a new energy for farming, and also find good long-term employees that may be interested in continuing the farm into the next generation.

How do we connect with farmers across Virginia? 

Virginia Beginning Farmers & Ranchers Project is a coalition effort.  The Coalition currently consists of 25 different organizations across Virginia representing Virginia Tech & Virginia State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the non-governmental sector, beginning & established farmers and local, state, and federal government.   The group continues to grow.  The Coalition is able to achieve much more than any one of these single organizations could do alone.  Working through the community-based participatory research approach, the coalition plays a part in every aspect of the Virginia Beginning Farmer & Rancher Project, including the Virginia Farm Mentor Network.  C.J. and I rely on the members of the coalition to assist in identifying established and beginning farmers and ranchers to work with.   The members of the coalition have connections in their local communities that would take years to build and establish…maybe even decades.  I’m truly grateful to be working with such a great team armed with extraordinary reach, strength in the agriculture community,  and a ‘from the ground up’ type of approach.

Visit the Coalition tab of the Virignia Beginning Farmer & Rancher website for more information and details on who is involved the Virginia Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition, and how those organizations are also working to help beginning farmers and ranchers across Virginia.

Want more details? 

For more information on how to get involved with the Virginia Farm Mentor Network or if you have questions, feel free to “leave a reply” below or contact:

Kelli Scott at kescott1@vt.edu   or (540) 315-5884        (Southwest Virginia)

C.J. Isbell at cjisbell@vt.edu or (540) 553-2278            (Central Virginia)

Check out the Virginia Farm Mentor Network Flyer below.

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